The cabbie seemed uncharacteristically thoughtful. "I think it's time we started thinking about a general amnesty," he said.

"You're a little late," I told him. "The District of Columbia and Maryland already have given delinquent taxpayers a chance to square their records without penalty. You must be talking about federal taxes."

"I wasn't talking about taxes at all," the cabbie said. "And before you get cranked up, I'm not talking about illegal aliens either. I'm talking about politicians. I think it's time we offered amnesty to all the presidential candidates."

I sat for a moment trying to decide whether to laugh at his little joke or, on the assumption that he was serious, try to straighten him out. Before I could make up my mind, he started talking again.

"Think about the mess we've been going through lately," he said. "All this old stuff you reporters have been digging up doesn't have a blessed thing to do with whether a person would be a good president or not. But once you spread it all over the media and then keep harping on it, the poor devil hasn't got a chance. I don't think that's right."

I admitted that while errors from a candidate's distant past didn't particularly bother me, I was concerned about more recent lapses. To my surprise, the cabbie agreed.

"That's exactly what I'm talking about," he said. "If a candidate messed up after he was already an established politician -- especially if he messes up while he's running for president -- that's a serious issue that the voters ought to be taking into account. What I'm talking about is amnesty for the old stuff.

"We ought to say to all the candidates that anything they did more than eight or 10 years ago is off the books. We won't even talk about it."

I was starting to like it in spite of myself, but I still had some problems. To start with, I said, amnesty usually involves a full confession of the offense. But if a politician has to own up to every mistake he ever made before he becomes eligible for amnesty, then amnesty won't help him. The damage would already have been done.

"Not necessarily," the cabbie said. "Do you really think the voters care that Joe Biden messed up back when he was in college? Do you really think they care that Pat Robertson got his family started a few months before he got married? Do you really think they care that Gary Hart changed his name and age? No, the only reason those things mattered is because politicians and reporters kept talking about them. My idea of amnesty is that once a politician owns up to old mistakes, nobody will be allowed to talk about them."

"How could you ever enforce such a rule?" I asked.

"Simple," he said. "Any politician who brings up a mistake after the candidate has already 'fessed up automatically volunteers himself for a full background check by Bob Woodward . . ."

"But what about the press itself?"

". . . and any reporter who writes a second story about it after the confession is on the record is automatically subjected to a full-scale investigation of his own background by a committee of investigative reporters."

This guy was making more and more sense. "You mean that if we find out a candidate has a current weakness for womanizing or stealing other people's speeches or playing dirty tricks, we can report that the way we do now?"

"Of course," the cabbie said.

"But if anybody brings up stuff that happened 10 years ago, he triggers an investigation into his own background?"

"Exactly," the cabbie said. "How many reporters and politicians do you believe would want to have their personal shortcomings spread across the papers? Would you want Bob Woodward looking at your college term papers or your medical records or your sexual history? Would you want to be held to account for every fool thing you or any member of your family ever did or said before you got to be a hot-shot columnist? Would you want every job application you ever made to be checked to see if you told the absolute truth? I sure as heck wouldn't, and neither would you. So why is it fair for you to do the same thing to some dude just because he decided to run for high office?"

"But wouldn't your proposal be an open invitation for every scoundrel in the country to clean up his act and run for president?" I said.

"Well, what's so bad about giving scoundrels a chance to clean up their act?" he said. "But the point is that a lot of good people are ducking the presidential race because they don't want you guys mucking around in their history. Let them lay it all on the line without penalty, and you are likely to get better candidates, not worse."

"But what about the candidate who owned up to some of his mistakes but not to others?"

"Then he'd be fair game for anything a reporter could dig up," he said.

"You know," I told him, "this amnesty thing is not exactly the dumbest idea you ever had." BY LOWE